This week we are thinking about exchange – new for old. That’s the common theme of the Bible readings set for Sunday, March 27 by the Revised Common Lectionary used by many churches and chapels. See also a study on these Bible readings with verse by verse commentary and reflections on the March 27 Post of The Living Word.
• Also this week’s video (10 min) which is based on this article
There is an old adage that says: “If it’s too good to be true, it is too good to be true!”
This is the exception.
It sounds too good to be true. We wonder what the catch is — but this is simply God’s nature, which we discover as we turn to Him by asking Jesus into our hearts. The big story comes out of three short stories from the Bible which all bring out God’s gift of new life for old, and how we can all turn to God, however undeserving we may feel, in the assurance that He will treat us very much better than we deserve,
Setting the scene are some verses from Psalm 32 and some poetic words written by King David out of his own experience.
1 Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
2 Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit.
3 When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night Your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to You and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And You forgave the guilt of my sin…
10 Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in Him.
11 Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart!
The OT part of the story is about the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land. After a providential escape from the Egyptians, when the Red Sea miraculously opened up a way for them to cross, and a testing time in the desert, a transition from the generation that had been slaves in Egypt, they have reached their God-given destination. There’s been a second miraculous crossing, this time allowing them, their children, flocks and their herds, to walk dry-foot across the bed of the River Jordan not far from Jericho. This marked the end of that wilderness and refugee era, and the beginning of a new life of settlement, able to live off the land in a fertile place.
9 Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day.
10 On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover.
11 The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain.
12 The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.
Now with ripening barley all around them they didn’t need to rely on daily manna for food. With this new start, in a new land, there was also a sense of new identity, not now slaves but free. God was telling them that, just as he had rolled back the water for them to cross, He had also rolled away the shame of their former servility.
The 40 years of wandering in the desert was a time of working out their failure. Two of the scouts had brought back a positive report about Canaan being a fertile land, with hostilities they could overcome. But the people couldn’t believe this or trust the Lord’s protection in this move into the unknown. God had to put the project on hold until the unbelieving generation passed away. Now, it was a different time and new attitude. Here at Gilgal (meaning ‘circle’ or ‘roll’), 12 stones from the river were placed in a circle, a sign of possession.
This would be remembered as the place where the shame of failure had been graciously exchanged for God’s renewed favour.
Elements of that OT story come again in the parable that Jesus told about the man who had two sons. Once again we encounter independence, disobedience, wandering, a return — and gracious restoration. And we see a former life that had stumbled to failure and shame, exchanged for a new start, and astonishing, undeserved favour. Jesus is teaching His hearers what God is like, but also where God’s priorities lie.
1-3 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Then Jesus told them this parable:
11-12 “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
14-16 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17-19 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be cal20 “So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22-24 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found25-27 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28-30 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
Jesus is speaking encouragement to a socially excluded group, mainly those who collected tax for the Roman occupiers. The proceedings were also being watched closely by a group of Pharisees, openly critical of the way Jesus befriended people they regarded as sinners. Jesus tells a story of a man of property with two sons who allocated his estate to them during his lifetime – which was not uncommon. The older son would have had the larger share, probably two-thirds, but in this instance the younger one wanted his share early to emigrate, and seek his fortune elsewhere.
Despite this disrespectful behaviour to his father, he gets his share, converts it into cash, and goes off to live it up among the Gentiles — for a while. But then famine hits that country, opportunities for business or employment dry up, and he finds himself starving and begging a Gentile landowner for the lowest form of employment — feeding pigs. He is a Jew, reduced to keeping ‘unclean’ animals and longing to share in the coarse husks they are noisily consuming. Realisation dawns, he swallows his pride and rehearses a speech asking forgiveness for his selfish and insolent behaviour to his father as he makes his way home to confess.
The story brings out the older son’s hostility and anger: why should such forgiving love be shown to his irresponsible younger brother? Those hearing the story would have seen themselves in it — the tax collectors who had effectively left Judaism for a more profitable occupation, like the younger son, and the Pharisees, rigidly correct and strenuously observing their interpretation right behaviour, yet apparently receiving less favour than the reprobate.
If this is a story about what God is like as the heavenly Father, He is portrayed as being biased towards the person who admits that mistakes and humbly asks for a new start, rather than the person who has been careful not to make any. For those of a rigid and religious mindset — then or now — this is a teaching which upends our theology!
Some of Jesus’ teaching is hard to explain as it stands, especially if we see it more as ‘doing’ than a new way of spiritual ‘being’. How we live it and work with it is largely explained in the later part of the NT from the time following the resurrection and Pentecost. It’s a different perspective: this is not just holy living, it is Holy Spirit enabled living. The Holy Spirit was very much present and active in the lives of those who believed in Jesus.
Jesus’ teaching was all about the kingdom of God — what the realm of God meant and what it was like living for God, not by human effort, but by the empowering of the Spirit, the presence of God within the believer.
Now we come to an extract from a letter to believers in Corinth which gives a clear, concise statement of how the gospel, the good news of salvation is also a new and far better covenant agreement with God.
This is not now a code of obedience or a religious framework, but much more of a working partnership for life and mission based on mutual trust. Like the Israelites at Gilgal who had to learn to see themselves differently, and the repentant son who had to see himself accepted as family once more, a key part of that partnership is a new spiritual perspective on who we are in God’s sight.
16 So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.
17-19 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them.
19-21 And He has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
“Be reconciled to God” is a phrase which comes out of all three stories. The Israelites had to learn to see themselves as reconciled to God through being His possession, and not the Egyptians’ position. The younger son in Jesus story had already decided to seek to be reconciled with his father and now it was the older son who had to change and see that reconciliation was the highest priority for his father.
And for the mainly Gentile believers in Corinth, it was a reminder that the new birth through receiving Jesus as Saviour and Lord is becoming renewed as a new spiritual person.
But there’s more! As those who have been recreated and renewed by God’s grace, we are not just passive recipients of His goodness but we are on active service, called to share it with others. It is a reminder that every believer has a ministry, and although we have different personalities and attributes and spiritual gifts, ministry is always going to be about sharing God’s grace and His amazing message of reconciliation, with others wherever we have opportunity.